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SimCity 4 Newbie Tutorial

How Do I Start a City Without Going Broke?!

This seems to be the most common question asked by new SimCity 4 players. It can be pretty frustrating to pay $40 for a piece of software, and then struggle in the first 5 minutes of gameplay. The reason so many have trouble enjoying SimCity 4 is because they are approaching it the wrong way…

Perhaps the greatest misconception about SimCity 4 is that it is a game. It is not. SimCity 4 is a city ’simulator’. It’s grandfather is not Wolfenstein 3D, but rather LotusNotes. It isn’t fast-paced. It won’t have you riveted by an epic storyline. And you most definitely won’t find it in your local arcade. However, what SimCity4 lacks in edge of your seat excitement and special effects, it makes up for in depth-of-play and versatility.

The learning curve is steep. Even for many veterans of SimCity Classic, SimCity 2000, and SimCity 3000, learning to manage a city in SC4 without breaking the bank was tough. No sooner than the fireworks subside we want to build all the services available - police and fire stations, schools, parks, and subways. We want our city to be the home of the Empire State Building. And we want it built today! We don’t want to waste our time with those dirty Industrial zones or those boring farms. Give me the skyscrapers! But the truth is that your impatience is the very reason that your cities always go bankrupt.

I would like to offer you three principles that will help you not only build a city that is fiscally viable, but will make your time playing SC4 more rewarding, as well:

1) Spend it like it’s your own money

How often have you heard people complain about some corrupt politician and his ‘pork barrel politics?’ Nothing gets people madder than politicians wasting their tax dollars (or euros, or yen, or whatever…). In SC4, you are that corrupt politician. You have complete control over the city’s expenditures. Will you lavish your citizens with clean water, good schools, and ample public transportation? If so, how soon will you do so? The biggest mistake that players make is providing too many services too soon. Why build police stations if there is no crime? Why build fire stations if there is no fire? Why build water systems and public transportation networks if the city has no development? Would you pay for internet service if you didn’t have a computer and could never use it? Of course not! Yet when you play SC4, you probably overfund your power plants, thereby paying for power that is never used! To build an efficient and viable city, you should spend money like you would your own.

2) Build more than just skyscrapers

We’ve all seen those pictures on the web of someone’s huge city and been a little jealous. Who wouldn’t want a region of booming metropolises? But you should know that there are only two ways to achieve that sort of development in SC4: build more than just skyscrapers, or cheat. What I mean by build more than just skyscrapers is adopting a new mindset where the process of building and managing your city through all the stages of its growth is seen as enjoyable. When it really comes down to it, some of the most well-laid out and beautiful SC4 cities I’ve seen were farming communities, suburbs, and industrial hellholes. And some of the worst cities I’ve ever seen were huge nothing-but-6×6-grid Commercial districts built on completely flat maps. Building more than just skyscrapers means zoning for agriculture, even if you want to someday use that land for the suburbs. Eventually, when you do decide to zone for the ‘burbs, maybe you’ll spare some of that farmland from redevelopment. Now that is the kind of character that makes a city look great! I’m not saying that you should never build skyscrapers. I’m just saying that you need to…

3) Have patience

You can have it all and still maintain a balanced city budget! In fact, the larger your city, the easier it is to keep your funds in check. One of my favorite cities has 500,000 residential and 300,000 commercial population. The EQ, Health, Environment, Safety, etc quotients are all off the chart. The citizens have everything they could ask for, and yet I still regularly lower the tax rates because of all the excess revenue that comes into the city coffers. But you can’t expect that overnight. It took countless hours and many stages of development before the city reached that point. At one time it was a dumpy industrial city. Before that, it was mostly farmland. Now it is a city rich in history and diversity. I have made larger cities, but none that I am as proud of. Only if you are patient will you be able to build a realistically developed city. If you can’t (or won’t) wait for your city to develop ‘naturally’, you will find yourself the mayor of a city that is either bankrupt or ugly (or both).

Enough theory, let’s get to nitty gritty: “How do I start a city without going broke?!”

For the sake of this tutorial, I will be building this city using the hard difficulty level in an empty region. The reason for this is to show that it is indeed possible to make large profits early on in your city’s development, even if it is on hard difficulty in a brand new region!

A city is not a city without some residents, so let’s zone some low-density residential zones…

Zone in whatever pattern you like. This is a new grid pattern I am trying out. As the city grows, I will fill in the tiles along the avenue with commercial zoning.

…And our residents will need jobs, so let’s zone some industry across the river.

The reason we won’t be zoning for commercial just yet is that there isn’t any demand for it yet. An important rule to follow is never zone for a development type (i.e. Res, Com, or Ind) unless there is current demand for that type. Sure I would like to have some commercial zones lining that avenue, but if I zone it as commercial nothing will build. Instead, I’ll be patient and save that money until there is a demand for commercial. This is why the demand graph is one of the most important tools a mayor can use. Early in the game, there will be very little commercial demand. Just accept this and zone Res. and Ind. for now.

Before these zones will develop, what do they need? By that I mean what is the absolute minimum that is needed for buildings to develop in these zones? The correct answer is power and road access. We already took care of road access, so let’s provide power. For a beginning city I always use coal power plants. I have two reasons for this: 1) Coal Power is the cheapest, and 2) Coal Power is the cheapest. Because it will produce a lot of pollution, place it on the edge of the map (so that much of the pollution goes into that netherworld of blue). Also, make sure you place it a good distance from your zones, as sims don’t like living or working near pollution.

(Note! At the time I took this picture, I was unaware of a gameplay bug that sometimes occurs when you don’t provide road access to your power plants. In the words of toroca, a SimCity4 guru: “Basically what happens is that sometimes the simulator tries to give sims jobs in the power plant, but then it finds there’s no way to get there, and you get No Job Zots that shift around every little bit.” I personally have never experienced this problem, but now that I know, I recommend that you always build a road to your power plants, just in case.)

A quick peek at our city’s budget:

Monthly expenses are $286. Not too bad, but it could be better. The best way to trim the budget early on is through defunding your power plant. This tiny hamlet isn’t going to use all that power anyway! Sure, underfunding the power plant may cause it to become less efficient over the years, but in the long run you will save money by doing this. Adjust that funding slider…

We’ve lowered the power plant funding. Just remember, when you start seeing those ‘no power’ zots above your city’s buildings, go back to the power plant and adjust the funding slider until you are providing everyone with power. We don’t want everyone leaving town because we were that cheap. Notice the budget window says that our expenses are now $71. That sounds much better than $286.

With our zones powered, and our budget trimmed, let’s unpause for a couple mon*** What about water?! Shouldn’t we provide our sims with water? someone frantically asks. The answer is No. Low income residential zones do not require water, and since that is pretty much all that will develop in this early stage of the city, why waste the money on fancy pumping-technology? As I was saying before you interrupted, let’s unpause for a couple months and see what develops…

Hey it looks pretty good! We have 291 residents and some Industrial development, too. The city’s income is $206 and expenses are at $87 a month (due to an increase in power plant funding)! This city is making a profit pretty early on! Some of you impatient mayors may be saying that now it’s time to build schools, hospitals, police and fire stations. That would be a mistake. For now, we ought to focus on growing our tax-base, er… I mean… increasing our population. Soon, you will get these stupid messages:

Ignore them. A true leader knows what is best for his people (or is that ‘a true tyrant knows…’?). Make those ingrates endure a while longer without medical care and fire protection. What good are citizens with a long life expectancy if the city goes bankrupt?

What we really need is more zoning…

Now the cheapskate strategy is really paying off! We have 3,893 residents, some nice Industrial development, a little local agriculture and even some commercial development along the avenue! Best of all, monthly income is $2,002 and monthly expenses are $271. That’s a nice monthly profit for a city of 3,893 people! The only increase in expenses was for power plant production and a few more roads that need to be maintained.

We could continue on with this method of zoning more and more Residential and Industrial. In fact, you could fill an entire large map with this sort of thing and never lay a single water pipe, never build a single services building, and never enact a single ordinance. By doing this, you would have poor and dumb citizens, very dirty air and water, and your city would make tens of thousands of simoleans in profit every month. If you want to build a moneymaking hellhole (not that there is anything wrong with that), just follow the steps above until your city map is filled. But if you desire your city to someday have Hi-Tech Industry, affluent neighborhoods, and a downtown commercial district, you are going to have to eventually provide water and other services…

The question arises: What should I build first? The first things that come to mind are water, schools, police stations, clinics, and fire stations. Since crime is not a problem yet we won’t build a police station. Since we haven’t had any fires, we won’t build a fire station (my philosophy on fire stations is to only build one if a fire breaks out nearby). That leaves us with the choice of building a water network, a school, or a clinic. The long-term effects of an educated city are immense - better jobs, cleaner industry, etc- so I will opt for a school at this point. I will also build a water network now. First the school:

I guess I should have said schools. I decided to build two elementary schools, to make sure all the residences are within at least one school’s circle of effectiveness. It normally costs $300 a month to maintain an elementary school. So the total should be $600 for 2 schools. Ouch! Fortunately, the elementary school has a funding slider like the power plant. So defund the schools until they provide about 20% more student capacity than there are students available.

Here we have 82 students living within this school’s circle of effectiveness, and the school can provide 104 students with services. We use a 20% cushion in case the population fluctuates. With both schools underfunded, this city can provide all its youngsters with an education for less than it would cost for one elementary school to be fully funded! That is the beauty of underfunding.

Note! For your buck, the best educational facilities are actually libraries - they increase the education quotient of all age groups in your city. Although I strive for efficiency in my cities, I also strive for realism, so I can’t just plop down libraries everywhere and neglect elementary schools. If you want to exclusively use libraries, I can’t stop you. Just make sure you can still look yourself in the mirror every morning…

Let’s provide our citizens with some water. They’ve lugged that bucket to the well enough times to have earned it. You have two options when providing water to your city: Water Towers or Water Pumps. Water Towers are cheaper to build but provide less water than Pumps. For this reason, many mayors simply skip the water tower and go straight to the big guy. This is a mistake. You cannot underfund either towers or pumps, so whether you use all 20,000 cu/m of water a month that the water pump produces or not, you still have to pay the full $350 maintenance cost. For a city this size, a water tower’s 2400 cu/m of water a month is more than enough, and the $50 a month maintenance fee is reasonable. Find a nice little hill to perch your tower upon: your citizens will be grateful for the increased water pressure (Ok, not really. It just makes it look more realistic, in my opinion).

When you lay water pipes, make sure you don’t run them underneath your agricultural and dirty industrial zones. If you do, the water will become polluted and you’ll have to build an expensive Water Treatment facility. As you lay pipes, remember that water will radiate to any building within 6 tiles of the pipes. For the best effectiveness, place parallel pipes 12 spaces apart.

Education and Water have been supplied, and the city is still making a $1300 profit every month! The city’s coffers currently hold $28,232 in reserve funds. We’ll let the simulation run on cheetah speed for a while. This will serve two purposes: 1) It will increase the reserve funds as every month passes, 2) our citizens will get smarter and the land values will increase due to the new services provided.

Well, it was bound to happen sooner or later. A fire has broken out in the industrial district. Just plop down a small fire station nearby.

You may be thinking that we should adjust the funding slider of this new fire station in order to save money. It sounds like a good idea, and it certainly is tempting, but I wouldn’t do it! The same goes for police stations. If you lower funding of either fire or police services, you run a pretty good risk of having them go on strike. The same thing can happen with schools and health services, but only if their capacity is lower than the actual number of students or patients. Police and fire ’strike risk’ is based upon funding level, whereas the school and health facilities ’strike risk’ is based on capacity. Basically what this means is that if you can’t afford to maintain police and fire facilities at 100% funding, don’t bother building them until you can.

Did you wonder why we waited so long to build our first fire station? At $125 a month in maintenance, we have saved $4000 over the 32-month history of this city by not building a fire station until we actually had our first fire! If you really want to take a preventative approach to fire protection in your city, go ahead and enact the Smoke Detector Ordinance. It is pretty cheap and does a decent job. It is certainly a better approach than simply plopping fire stations all over the city!

I’ve allowed some time to pass… enough time to fill the coffers up to $50,000 and to see our population rise to 5,000. The city is currently making $1500 a month in profits. Notice that even with 5,000 residents, the commercial demand is still next to nothing! Don’t worry. As your city grows, there will be more and more demand for commercial, and less and less for industrial. Eventually, when you have a large enough city, you will become annoyed because it just won’t be possible to fulfill all the commercial demand in your region!

Speaking of regions, this is probably a good time to build a neighboring city. This is the key to making your cities grow. As you connect more and more cities together within your region, the cross-pollination of demand will make things much easier for you as a mayor. In fact, you will find that every new city you build in your region will be easier to start than this first one! It is possible to build just a single city within your region, but it is not recommended, nor is it much fun. Try to specialize your cities within the region. Plan farming communities, industrial centers, suburbs, ghettos, and last of all commercial downtown districts filled with massive shiny buildings! But remember, no matter what your city is to become, start it out simply with low-density zones and minimal services.

Wherever you go from here is up to you. As long as you remember to spend it like it’s your own money, build more than just skyscrapers, and have patience, you will have a beautiful region sooner than you think. Best of all, you will have more fun with this ’simulator’, than you could ever have playing a game like Wolfenstein 3D.

F.A.Q.

When should I build my first clinic and/or police station?

Whenever you can afford to. You can build these services before your city reaches a population of 5,000 and still make a profit. By the end of the tutorial above, the city had $1500 a month in profits. That would provide very good police and health coverage. Use your own discretion. But remember - Just because some advisor or citizen complains about lack of police protection or medical care doesn’t mean you have to provide those services. I have built huge urban ghettos of over 200,000 residential population with hardly any police and health services. However, if you want medium and high wealth residential buildings, you will have to provide decent services.

Why don’t you just zone for high-density at the start of the game? Why zone low-density and then rezone it later? Aren’t you paying twice for the same end result?

By zoning exclusively low-density early on, you are saving money when money is hardest to come by. Sure you end up paying more in the long-term, but by the time you are ready to zone for high-density, you should have plenty of money saved up and a pretty good monthly profit. Starting out on a firm financial footing is worth it to me in the long run. I’d rather pay $10 per tile now to zone and $50 later, than pay $50 now when I’m strapped for cash.

What about garbage service?

Again, this is a quality of life issue. You can neglect this for some time, but it will affect the types of development that build in your city. A good option is exporting or burning your garbage. Even if you have the land to spare for a landfill, as your city grows large the amount of money to maintain acres upon acres of landfill can reach into the thousands of dollars per month!

It seems like you hardly zoned any commercial in the above tutorial. It doesn’t seem right. Are you sure that I can’t zone for more commercial than you did?

You can zone a whole large map full of commercial for all I care. But it won’t develop, and you will have wasted a lot of money. Stick to zoning based upon demand. When your region grows, you will be able to zone tons of commercial in new cities and have them develop. Be patient, and you will soon learn to despise the CS$ and CS$$ demand for it’s excessiveness.

I still can’t stay out of the red! What am I doing wrong?!

Don’t give up. Enter the forum and start asking questions. There are people there who are much more knowledgeable about SC4 than I am. And they are pretty friendly, too.

Written by CenterToolCopter - April 13, 2004 | Share this article

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